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Math Tools for Journalists chapters 1-4

November 2, 2012

Journalists aim to facilitate comprehension and generate an informed public. In order to fulfill this responsibility, journalists need to understand the significance of numbers and put them into context for their audience. Furthermore, journalists’ commitment to accuracy requires them to develop math skills. As Kathleen Woodruff Wickham argues, “don’t assume the person who prepared the documentation has good math skills” (18). The author offers brief instruction to improve her readers’ math literacy.

Journalists use specific language when writing about numbers.

  • Temperatures are described as “higher” or “lower,” rather than “warmer” or “cooler.”
  • “Farther” is used when referring to a physical distance, but “further” is used to discuss degree, time or quantity.
  • “Fewer” is used for items that can be counted, and “less than” is used for mass items or time terms.

Describing values in terms of percentages help readers grasp the scope of the numerical value and put things into perspective. Especially when discussing money, using percentages help readers understand the percent of the whole. Percentages are good when talking about:

  • Interest
  • Government/School budget
  • Salary increase

Wickham argues knowledge of statistics help journalists recognize when data has been skewed or manipulated. Also, calculating the standard deviation can help one notice inconsistent results. Additionally, standard deviation can signify diversity within data sets. Mean, median and mode are common terms when discussing statistics, but it is necessary to understand when each is appropriate to describe the data.

  • Mean is best used when there is an even distribution of the numbers, so the calculation would accurately portray the average.
  • Median is best used when there is a significant outlier that would otherwise skew the data.
  • Mode is best used when a number appears repeatedly and there is an outlier that would impact the results of the mean.

Statistics are commonly used to explain:

  • Percentiles
  • Probabilities, such as the lottery or risks

Once journalists are familiar with equations for statistics, it is necessary to apply these formulas to relevant information that impacts society. Federal agencies often use numbers to explain the economic situation or one nation’s relationship to another. Unemployment rates are frequently discussed this election season, and reporters need to understand what the numbers reveal about society and the nation. The same can be said for Gross Domestic Product. As Wickham explains, alone the GDP value does not have any significance. Only the change in GDP reveals the direction of the country’s economic activity. Furthermore, the GDP per capita offers insight into the “relative well-being of populations” (64) and the financial situation of individuals within a nation.

Federal Statistics are useful for discussing:

  • Unemployment
  • Inflation
  • Consumer Price Index
  • Gross Domestic Product
  • Trade balance

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